I was disappointed that the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) jury chose for Ken Jones’s grim, slice-of-life-and-death drama Diane as Best Narrative Feature despite it being much more theatrical than cinematic, but was delighted by the surprise selection of Greek-Cypriot Marios Piperides’ charming, satirical first feature, Smuggling Hendrix, as Best International Narrative Feature “for its unique, comedic exploration of a complicated absurd political situation told in a clear, personal compelling way.”
The (mostly) TFF synopsis: “Yiannis (Adam Bousdoukos), an unsuccessful musician, doesn’t have much going for him, save for his adorable dog, Jimi, and his fast-approaching date to get out of Cyprus for good. But when Jimi wanders from the Greek side across the UN buffer zone and into the section of the island Turkey seized more than 40 years ago, including his family home, he enlists a mismatched band of accomplices to help him get Jimi back.
They are his ex Kika (Vicky Papadopoulou), who loves their dog, too; Hasan (Fatih Al), who lives with his family in Yiannis’ family home but wants to leave the island; and Tuberk (Özgür Karadeniz), a Turkish conman who is more interested in money than rescuing the dog. As Yiannis’s efforts dip farther into absurdity, they offer a send-up of the forces that prolong a conflict that has been poorly understood and largely forgotten by the outside world.”
Piperides: “It’s micro plot reflects the complex real-world social dynamice of today: the divided island of Cyprus, the complexities of lost property issues; and the thorny issue of the Turkish settlers in the north, who have remained faceless all these years and are only used as negotiation numbers by politicians on both sides.”
Watch a clip:
A few days before the Cypriot-German-Greek production won the prestigious International Narrative Feature award, I spoke to director/writer Piperides and his coproducer Janine Teerling at the festival.
Danny Peary: Marios, I read in the press notes that your film actually was inspired by a true story of a Greek Cypriot trying to retrieve his dog from the Turkish side of Cyprus.
Marios Piperides: We went to the north side of the island with a couple of friends of ours. They had a dog. People go to the north side don’t know they can’t bring back their dog across the border and they’re stuck there. That’s what happened. There are many stories of this. We added the characters in the film and pushed the story, but it happens.
DP: Was this always intended to be a comedy or did you originally want it to be more serious?
MP: We wanted to go a little more into black comedy. It became funnier along the way. It was never going to be a drama.
Janine Teerling: It was meant to be a political satire. It would have been a very different film if we filmed the script as a drama.
MP: We wanted to say more about the whole situation and the absurdity of some things.
DP: I read in your Director’s Statement about how you grew up on Cyprus and it was many years later that you realized that things you were told about the other side were wrong.
MP: I was born in 1975, just after the division of the island. I could see the north side, including the mountains, and our elementary school books had pictures of the villages there I knew about them, but we couldn’t go there and experience it. And you go into the army and you are told things.
DP: I imagine that those on the other side were demonized.
JT: Exactly. They were the enemy.
DP: So everything you believed about the Turkish side was imagination, propaganda, and pictures?
JT: And perceived memories. People told you stories and over time you felt like they were your own memories.
DP: What was your feeling when you first crossed over? Did you take baby steps and want to retreat?
MP: We didn’t know what to expect. At the time we had to show our passports to go to the north side. When you showed your passport and signed your visa to cross the border it was recognition by Greek Cypriots that there was another country on the island. So there was a lot of political pressure and media telling people not to cross over.
When you finally go there, you experience it differently. It was very weird for me because it felt familiar—the people looked the same; the houses, the buildings, all the architecture looked the same; it smelled the same—but there were Turkish signs and streets I’d never been on. It was comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.
DP: Did you meet people on the Turkish side who had the same wary view of the Greek Cypriots?
MP: Yes. There were people who believed we can live together and others who refused to cross to our side. There were people in the north who didn’t want to show their passports or IDs to the guards at the UN buffer zone because that would legitimize the other side as a country.
I think the majority of the population wants unity, but it’s impossible for us to live together in peace right away after we thought of each other as the enemy for so many years. We need to slowly assimilate and hear the stories from the other side. We need to teach the other side our history because we have to live together.
JT: The 1974 invasion and occupation of the north didn’t happen out of the blue as the Greek Cypriot schoolbooks told us. There were things that happened before then that caused it. I’m not saying what has happened is right. Of course they shouldn’t have invaded and shouldn’t still be there, but our children should be taught that the Turkish Cypriots were marginalized, there was inter-communal conflict, and there were killings of Turkish Cypriots by Greek Cypriots in the 60s. It wasn’t peaceful. You have to teach this so there is truth and reconciliation; you can’t just teach that the other side is bad.
DP: There is the Greek Cypriot army and police in the south, the Turkish Cypriot army and police in the north, and the UN buffer zone in the middle. Is it all bureaucratic in regard to who can cross to the other side?
MP: You never know. Especially if you come from the north to the Greek side because there’s not really a border there. Sometimes they check your passports, and sometimes they don’t. In the film, Yannis can go either way but he can’t take Jimi.
JT: It’s a bit complicated. The island is all European Union but there is an occupation in the north. The Turkish-occupied north is not recognized as a country. People like Hasan who have been brought to settle in the occupied north are illegal inhabitants of the land so they can’t cross from the north to the south. Only Turkish-Cypriots can cross because they have official identification. So it’s very tricky. There are no actual borders, but there has to be some kind of regulation.
DP: There must be social media that connects people from both sides.
JT: There are also bi-communal classrooms and groups. It very much depends on what part of the political spectrum you’re on. If you’re pro-peace, you tend to be on the left; if you’re more to the right, you don’t want to cross to the other side, you don’t want to show your passport.
MP: Everybody has their own idea of what the solution should be.
DP: Have you known people like Yiannis who have gone to the north side and found Turks living in their family homes?
MP: Yes, there are many stories of this. It can be very emotional for them to see their houses after so many years.
MP: Many Turkish people who moved in kept the Greek Cypriots’ pictures, clothing, and other personal stuff. The Greek Cypriots left without packing because they assumed they’d return in a few days. They see their pictures on the walls. They now might see their wedding pictures, which can be very emotional.
JT: The Turkish settlers took very good care of what they found in the houses. Because it wasn’t their fault for what happened. They were brought to Cyprus for demographic reasons. They were taken from poor parts of Turkey and told they would get a house. Some didn’t even know they were going to Cyprus.
DP: So Yiannis going to the house Hasan’s family lives in now is very plausible?
MP: Yes. Even now. Some Turkish settlers won’t let them enter, but others do and they become friends and there are regular visits. The Greek Cypriots know these houses are theirs and the occupiers know these houses aren’t theirs, but there’s nothing anybody can do about the situation. It’s not just houses, but businesses. You may have owned a hotel and then you go back and someone else is running it. It can be very difficult when you lose your property.
DP: It’s such a strange, sad situation so it’s interesting that it lends itself to a satirical interpretation.
MP: It was also difficult for me to approach it this way. In the film,Yiannis says, “To Not Forget.” That was a sign I grew up with. You now see that sign everywhere. It has been too many years, something has to be done.
DP: Did you film in the north?
MP: Only one day. We didn’t want to spend money in the north or get permits there. We used a small crew.
JT: And we didn’t have the dog because we wouldn’t be able to bring it back to the south.
DP: The dog serves many purposes in the film, including the bonding of the characters and showing what’s wrong on Cyprus.
MP: He shows the human side of the whole situation. He’s a catalyst to what happens. He doesn’t care about borders.
JT: He shows how simple everything could be if there were no sides. If everyone could be like the dog it would be so simple.
MP: If dogs and cats and birds can go freely across borders then why can’t humans?
DP: Yiannis, Hasan, and Tuberk are strange bedfellows, all losers. Do you think they’ll continue hanging out after the movie?
MP: That is the idea of the scene on the roof. They have different backgrounds and there are problems between them, but under the sky they have found a way to be together. They’ve come to appreciate each other and understand each other’s stories. If they can live together so can we. Even if we don’t like or understand each other, we have to find a solution, as they have.
DP: What was your first conversation with Adam Bousdoukos? Was it about having a beard or how Yiannis should dress?
MP: He had that look from the beginning. The idea was that Yiannis is upset with everything in Cyprus and wants to go abroad. There was a bond crisis in 2013 and a lot of people were leaving because there were no jobs. We talked about how it was a serious subject matter that we couldn’t approach as an outright comedy. We’d approach it seriously but reveal the whole absurd side. We talked about how Yiannis is a man-child who never grew up and never took responsibility for his failures. He’s like a metaphor for both the Greek and Turk sides, who are like adult children who never take responsibilities although their actions have bad consequences. His actions have bad consequences.
DP: He lost a really good woman, Kika. That’s the worst consequence for him. She’s everything he could want.
MP: That’s true. He says to the dog two or three times, “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault.” He tells Kika, “It’s not my fault for why you left me and our dog, it’s your fault for leaving.” He won’t take responsibility for the problems he faces.
JT: This is very typical in Cyprus.
MP: Yes, politically also. We made mistakes.
JT: Cyprus was a British colony for a long time so there was an attitude where it’s people have to surrender to the colonizers. So it was always, “It’s not our fault but their fault.” And then after the invasion and Turkish occupation it was again, “It’s not us but them,” for everything. So there was no acknowledgment of our own mistakes. That must change.
MP: Hasan keeps saying, “I was brought here, it’s not my fault.” Everyone is blaming someone else for the situation they are in now.
DP: Talk about Hasan, a good guy despite his disposition.
MP: He’s more responsible than the others. He’s a family man. He gets dragged into this situation. He is just sitting there and Yiannis messes up his life. But he wants to help Yiannis. He’s a nice character.
DP: When casting, did you bring all four actors together?
MP: No. Only Adam came to Cyprus for a week, so we could discuss the script and his character. We didn’t do any rehearsals. Vicky came for only two days. Özgür came on Saturday, and Fatih came on Sunday and we were filming with the four of them and the dog, which came from Holland, on Monday.
DP: Maybe the dog is acting wildly on screen because it didn’t understand you.
MP (laughing): Yes, and it was very hot.
JT: They were all coming from different countries so that made it difficult.
DP: That doesn’t sound like the ideal situation for someone making his first feature film. I doubt you’ll want to take that approach for future films.
MP: No, that’s not what I want. Of course, you say that but you never know because of availability. Everyone liked the script and wanted to do the film, but Özgür was doing a play and Fatih a television series. It was very difficult, there was a lot of pressure and stress.
DP: Did you know everyone in your cast before filming?
MP: We didn’t know them personally before we were making this film, but we’d seen them in previous films and knew they were good actors. And we Skyped and they had a good vibe. We met with Adam once in Hamburg. We met Vicky once in Athens and then she came for two days to Cyprus. And we met Fatih on the Turkish side, in the north.
DP: When they all arrived did you immediately realize you made the right choices?
MP: Yes, I liked them as a group.
JT: The first scene they did together is the one in which they stand behind a fence and look at where the dog is being held. And we said, “They are good together.”
DP: How long did the shoot take?
MP: Forty days. Five days a week. What made it hard was all the restrictions, including dealing with the army. And it was very hot. That added to the stress.
JT: Adam was basically in every scene so he was there the whole time.
MP: The other actors and the dog were there for shorter times. As I said there were no rehearsals but we talked about the characters and their backgrounds. They didn’t know all the details, but what they needed to know was in the script, so they were prepared.
DP: What could have gone wrong with this? What was your biggest worry?
MP: I sent the script to people in America and England because I hoped that people could understand it.
JT: Our biggest worry was that the situation in Cyprus was too complicated for foreign audiences would understand it.
MP: We had to set up so many things early in the film regarding borders and nationalities and settlers and houses on both sides, but we didn’t want there to be two much information.
JT: And we didn’t want to lecture anyone, so we hoped to find the right balance.
DP: I think you found it. It’s an enjoyable film with talented actors and good characters, wit, and a novel storyline. So I expect it to do well with the diverse New York audience here. How does it feel to be at the Tribeca Film Festival?
JT: It’s very exciting. It is the first time a U.S. film festival, other than a Greek-only festivals, has shown a feature film from Cyprus!
MP: We produce only one or two films a year in Cyprus, so it’s great honor to have our film be at one of the biggest film festivals in the world.
***I hope everyone will pick up a copy of my new book with Hana Ali about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes: Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It. (Workman Publishing)
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.